We Used to call it Prejudice
October 21, 2020
Being prejudiced meant you disliked others based on some perceived characteristic, usually race. Foreigners, people from other parts of the country, people who lived differently could also be the targets of prejudice, but usually it was racial, and it was interpersonal and behavioral. Prejudice was those repugnant “whites only” signs over doors and drinking fountains, abusive language, and denials of services. Prejudice was overt and attitudinal. It was anathema to who we thought we were.
My father admitted to me that he had prejudices, although I never observed him to show them, and that he was committed to not transmitting them to us, his children. I realized that some of my older relatives were prejudiced. My father’s uncle made some crude remarks that shocked me, and my grandmother got scared if she saw a black person outside on the street. These things were puzzling to me and I thought they were wrong. We were not prejudiced; that was not acceptable. We were good people.
I began to understand that my Italian grandparents faced prejudice for being immigrants from a faraway country where they were poor. They came to the United States in the early 20th century in hopes of a better life, which they built together through hard work and sacrifice, slowly overcoming prejudice as their children were educated and assimilated into American society. When my mother expressed interest in attending college, my grandmother squashed her dreams, saying, “What do you think you are, American?” Actually, she was, having been born in the country in 1925, but the shadow of foreignness and sexism still hung over the girls. My uncles became very successful, rising into the upper class, despite their unusual surname. The prejudice they faced was never the pernicious scourge of racism.
Racism is pervasive in American culture, history, institutions, economics and politics. It’s there in every form of activity in society. Racism is systemic and pandemic, and is distinct from prejudice, but many of us (especially if we are white people) have not been taught about how racism pervades every aspect of society. If we don’t express personal prejudice, we might think that we are okay; we are not participating in racism. When we learn about redlining, for example, and the way that this pervasive practice in real-estate and development deprived black people from the opportunity to build family wealth, we realize that we may have benefitted from systemic racism we didn’t even know existed. The slide shown in the video about redlining looked just like the house I grew up in, a military tract developed for GIs returning from the war. Everyone who lived there, though, was white.
Reading the 1619 Project (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html) is a crash course in the ways in which the founding principles of the United States permitted slavery to persist and how it was woven into every institution. February is Black History Month, but what do we do beyond recognizing a few individuals who contributed significantly to our culture? Black history is American history, but like the contributions of and the truth about the rubbing out of the Indigenous peoples who were here before European settlers arrived, it is not included in appropriate depth and at length in most school curricula. Almost as soon as the school curriculum based on the 1619 Project became available, opposition to its implementation arose. This verifiable and research-based history is a threat to the national narrative that is based on its omission, but we will not truly know ourselves until we know all of it.
There is so much work to do: personal work, shared work, institutional reform work, and justice work. We have countless books to read, causes to support and opportunities to get involved to do the necessary work on ourselves and on our systems. Let’s get started, each of us, to create a new vision for who we would be, if we could be, who we should be*: living up to the ideals we espouse in the land of the free.
*Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan